Can we save Africa’s wildlife?


In the face of unprecedented poaching of Africa’s wildlife, Peter Borchert assesses the fight against wildlife trafficking. He is dismayed and angered at the wanton killing of wildlife motivated by ignorance, greed and brutal crime. As with human trafficking, arms dealing and the drug trade, he sees the illegal wildlife trade as an indictment shaming all of humanity.

Wildlife trafficking. It is a brutal, cruel industry controlled by very powerful international crime syndicates. It is so lucrative that many African countries have become killing fields where elephants and rhinos in particular are being massacred daily. Can the tide be turned? Not easily, but the sustained efforts of conservationists and their organisations in Africa and elsewhere are giving us a glimmer of hope, and this needs to be recognised and supported by governments, wildlife authorities and ordinary people all over the world.

Estimates of the global scale of the illegal trade in wild creatures and their body parts, as well as plants, range from US$5-billion to beyond US$20-billion a year. It is a huge part of the clandestine world of organised crime, outstripped only by trafficking in drugs, humans and weapons. It is ugly, ruthless, totally indifferent to suffering and all but unstoppable, with the big men behind the smuggling mantled in anonymity and seemingly beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities.

The market for exotic animals and plants is not a new one. Africa’s wildlife has been traded freely and without sanction or restriction throughout the ages. Even now, in terms of international law, millions of animals and plants across thousands and thousands of species are legitimately captured and cropped from the wild every year and sold on as pets, food, medicine, timber, garden plants, tourist tat and in many other guises.

The international body charged with regulating this wildlife trade is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) but, notwithstanding their efforts, the extent of illegal trade is escalating at an unprecedented rate, not only causing serious setbacks to decades of conservation work, but pushing many species to a point of crisis and dire threat to their very existence.

Not surprisingly, much of wildlife trading is conducted online with criminals using the same deep-web tools associated with child pornography, large-scale money laundering and drug trafficking to hide negotiations and transactions. In Africa this crisis is particularly manifest owing to the systematic criminal annihilation of high-profile species such as elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns. Our forests, too, with their treasures of parrots, apes and timber, are being stripped at frightening speed.

The drivers behind illegal trade are numerous. Endemic poverty in range states means that small sums of cash easily recruit poachers in income-starved communities who see very little value in wildlife. The rapid burgeoning of wealth in end-market countries means more and more people can afford commodities such as ivory and rhino horn that carry huge lifestyle status.

The use of rhino horn as a symbol of status among wealthy urban Vietnamese has been identified as a major driver of the rhino horn poaching crisis. WWF-funded consumer research concluded earlier this year in Vietnam has helped significantly in understanding why a growing economy and an emerging wealthy middle class is pressuring African rhino populations.

Buyers and users see rhino horn not only as a status symbol‚ (often used to gift to family members, business colleagues or people in positions of authority) but also associate it with a feeling of  ‘peace of mind’. Dr Jo Shaw, WWF-South Africa’s Rhino Co-ordinator, says, ‘typical users of rhino horn are successful, well-educated men, over the age of 40 who live in Vietnam’s main urban centres’. Significantly for possible future demand, beyond current consumers lies a large ‘intender’ group of people who are not currently buying horn, but would do so in future.

Worryingly, added to this diabolical mix are endemic levels of corruption and toothless laws that, coupled with poor policing and ineffective courts, create circumstances where even successful prosecutions carry such nominal punishments that they provide hardly any deterrent at all. In classical economic terms therefore, the illegal plundering of wildlife is seen as a low-risk high-return investment within a rapidly growing market niche.

Utter the term ‘wildlife trafficking’ and of course China is commonly and quickly mentioned. Although China (together with Vietnam in respect of rhino horn) certainly has the dubious status of being the prime destination for illegally exploited wildlife, the United States and the European Union follow on to complete the triumvirate of key trafficking markets. The US typically seizes US$10-million worth of contraband animals and products every year (and this is but the tip of the iceberg), while in one year alone some 7 000 shipments, including more than 3.5 million CITES-protected wildlife specimens, were seized within the EU.

In China celebrities and other notables are giving voice to the protest against their country’s role in the ivory trade, and it seems that both government and ordinary citizens are beginning to take note. In early March this year Yao Ming, a former basketball star, delivered a petition to the Chinese government calling for an outright ban on the sale, import, purchase and transport of ivory and ivory products. Co-signatories included Wang Wenjing and Liu Jun, who head two of China’s multinational corporate giants.

If adopted as law this would effectively cauterise the legal loophole that allows crime syndicates to launder contraband ivory from the thriving black market back into commercial circulation. A 2011 investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) revealed that more than half of officially licensed outlets sold illegal ivory, and that unlicensed outlets far outnumbered the legal ones.

Public ignorance plays a huge role, in China and elsewhere. In 2012 a survey by the NGO WildAid found that many Chinese people knew virtually nothing about the provenance of ivory: of the sample interviewed, more than 50 per cent thought that ivory came from living or domesticated elephants, or from those that had died of natural causes.

But thanks to social media efforts featuring Yao Ming and film star Li Bingbing, (part of a demand-reduction campaign by African Wildlife Foundation, WildAid and Save the Elephants) saying ‘no to ivory’ has started to go viral. Add to this the recent release of a short Mandarin-language documentary On Elephants and Ivory, in which Li also took part, and the undertaking of a number of people on China’s ‘rich list’ to never purchase, possess, or give ivory as a gift, and maybe, just maybe, there is reason to hope that the tide of demand is not only reaching the high watermark but possibly even starting to ebb.

Certainly the Chinese government seems to be reacting. Text messages are being used to discourage tourists from buying ivory and rhino horn products, and in January this year six tonnes of seized ivory were destroyed. The event was broadcast live, hopefully carrying a broad awareness message to consumers, as well as a strong signal to crime bosses speculating on the future value of their stockpiles.

A few weeks later at the Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in London, China not only took part but also reiterated its support for the existing CITES prohibition on commercial international trade in elephant ivory.

Despite some differences on the role (if any) of legal trade, most experts support the global opinion behind the need to curtail the consumer demand for ivory and rhino horn in key destination markets, through sustained awareness campaigns coupled with tighter legislation firmly enforced. If successful, this should, in theory and maybe in practice too, weaken the rampant illegal killing of Africa’s great megafauna.

But is it a case of too little progress far to late? Will these efforts be able to gain real traction before creatures like elephants and rhino pass the tipping point and slide into extinction?

Challenging the CITES prohibition of all trade in ivory and rhino horn, is a small but vociferous lobby that believes a strictly controlled legal trade would drive down the price of contraband and thereby lessen illegal demand. At the lobby’s core is South Africa, where the opinion of a few high-profile economists suggests that trade is the way forward. The argument, strongly supported by the South African government and egged on by certain private land- and wildlife-owners, contends that revenues gained would be arraigned against poaching and would benefit conservation in general by making the species concerned commercially worth saving.

Will South Africa be able to persuade the next CITES conference to adopt such a view? Certainly it won’t be for a lack of effort, but it would be a great pity if it were to happen. Why? Because experience in China and elsewhere reveals that any legal trade simply provides a cloak behind which illegal contraband can be laundered. (In 1989, following a catastrophic wave of poaching during the 1970s and ’80s, the parties to CITES voted to ban the international trade in ivory and ivory products. Domestic markets were unaffected, but it became a crime to transport ivory across national borders. In 1999, and then again in 2008, some range states whose elephant populations had stabilised were allowed so-called ‘one-off’ sales of their ivory stockpiles to approved buyers China and Japan, who had to comply with strict regulations. In China this veneer of legality provided a convenient smokescreen for the laundering of contraband ivory.)

Furthermore, current levels of corruption in Africa are so widespread and inclusive of the highest government levels, local big men, impoverished villagers, conservation officials, businesses, border enforcement agencies and even veterinarians, that any attempt at trade control is, currently at least, somewhat futile. The crime rings out-gun, out-play and out-resource at almost every level the comparatively meagre funds and manpower available for conservation within African nations.

Against such a background it is very, very hard to see how a so-called legal trade could be monitored, let alone enforced.

As if corruption and organised crime in wildlife trafficking are not enough of a sinister cast to the entire issue, there are two further disturbing elements in the mix.

The first is that a geographic nexus appears to exist, not only between the illegal trade and its acknowledged links to major violent crime, but also with political destabilisation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the northern states of central Africa, where Somali and Sudanese warlords and militias are massacring elephants and selling the ivory to fund their causes. It is even suspected that there are links to radical, fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda.

In a way, the second element is even more worrying. In a recent post on National Geographic’s NewsWatch, veteran investigative journalist Karl Amman points to substantial evidence of irregularities in the issuing and monitoring of CITES permits. If indeed corruption and gross incompetence reaches back into the treaty whose raison d’être is the regulation of cross-border trade, then wildlife target species are in even graver danger than we think they are.

IFAW sums up the call to action rather well. Governments, multilateral institutions, IGOs and NGOs should:

  • Elevate wildlife crime to the level of other serious international organised
    crimes that pose significant threats to global security and development, such as human trafficking and the drugs trade.
  • Strengthen policies and legal frameworks, increase law enforcement capacity, and develop effective judicial systems in order to better combat wildlife crime at local, national and international levels.
  • Develop and implement regional wildlife enforcement strategies and network that are interconnected through a global coordinating mechanism.
  • Address the growing demand for and availability of wildlife products through targeted consumer awareness and demand-reducing initiatives in key consumer states.

All of the above, of course, has to be done within the context of real buy-in from local communities within and adjacent to conservation areas. Without real benefits being seen and felt, nothing will succeed and the crime rings will have a deep and ongoing recruitment pool of footsoldiers.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Travel Africa magazine



About Author

Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more

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